Time out

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    Time is precious but we seldom treat it as such unless (like James Bond) we are staring death in the face or having one of those sand-through-the-hourglass epiphanies that can come at the end of a run of – for example – unbearably beautiful holiday weather in some idyllic location.

    These last couple of weekends have held just such moments: zephyr winds with curving sails, perfectly coiled ropes and the bow peeling apart the waves, long horizons in impossible colours and gleeful, golden children – vivid against blue-green water – learning to swim or snorkel or master the Christmas surfboard that has real fins.

    It’s when Eckhart Tolle’s ‘now’ moment whacks you around the ears and, briefly, makes you take time out to notice.

    It can be so fierce, you want to bottle it or at least share the moment with someone else, or even, on a sunny afternoon, everyone else. If you reach for a camera, you’ve probably missed the point. 

    So here we are, wasting time, making time, having time speed up or slow down, losing time, gaining time and striving to fill time while hardly bothering to regret its going or make any meaningful plans for its use.  

    All shortly before going on borrowed time while failing to notice that this actual moment is the sum of everything we’ve spent our time on so far and the people we have spent our time with. 

    The future is what we haven’t yet had time for, although, like an enthusiastic three-year-old, we’ve probably scribbled stuff on a lot of the pages that no longer makes any sense but seemed important at the time.

    We can let summer’s moments of existential wonder fly by or we can use them for some serious second thoughts about the efficacy of New Year resolutions and spend time designing futures that are wiser and kinder than might otherwise came to be.

    We all know that if we don’t, someone (and maybe time itself) will fill in the gap. 

    And since time is money, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – the planet’s ‘frightful five’ mega corporations – are racing to fill our time: with stuff, with gimcracks, with mind-bending intrusions on individual privacy and now that focus of science fiction nightmares, a free-for all to develop artificial intelligence.

    These insanely profitable corporations already shape delivery of internet-based services to individuals and wield economic power that guarantees disproportionate access to legislators and governments.

    Politics, civil society, science, journalism and business traditionally kept a certain distance from each other but the ‘frightful five’ are present in all of these fields and well able to build or stifle opinion within democracies.

    In any case, the 21st century has virtually invented ‘shadow work’ to fill our time. We have had to learn our way around help desk queues, the time-banditry of endless, tinkering computer research and development, supermarket checkout kiosks and a thousand on-line and apparently rhetorical ‘frequently asked questions’. 

    We do half the work for everyone from tax collectors to other people’s accounting departments and our spare time suffers bitterly because the public and corporate purse apparently doesn’t care to waste the time of its underlings answering the corporate telephone in a timely manner, thereby wasting a lot of everyone else’s.

    It was early 20th century US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said: “For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.”

    We might be beginning to reclaim mindfulness and the joys of decluttering our lives but consideration of the guardianship and the heavy lifting inherent in Holmes’s summary is timely.

    We’ve not yet seen even a beginning of healthy debate on citizen privacy or the AI fantasy story when it comes to world-order changes in society. Mindless naivety based on self-serving and untested assumptions from tech giants won’t morph into a future with wholesome perspectives and an accurate and intelligent civilisation until we collectively make time to secure a civilised legal framework.

    Individually, most of us can save a lot of time by uncoupling from meaningless screen-time including the Trump circus (though taking note of the dastardly stuff going on outside of the diversionary tweets that we will have to clean up later). 

    It’s also worth ensuring we are – online as well as off – hanging round with people, ideas, research and information worthy of our valuable time. • Liz Waters

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